Usable Knowledge: What is Teaching for Understanding?

investigateWhat is Teaching for Understanding? That’s the title of a Harvard site named “Useful Knowledge” I was naturally intrigued by the title, but as I read on, I was disappointed. The site describes that the Harvard Framework is designed to keep teachers focused on student understanding. I can not discover how this ‘framework’ adds anything new to the discussion about effective teaching. The site is summarised below. Make up your own mind. I’d love you to explain to me that the good people at Harvard have not just stated the bleeding obvious:

“This framework is a guide that can help keep the focus of educational practice on understanding, while allowing teachers flexibility to design units that fit their priorities and teaching style.”

#1: Generative Topics

What makes a topic or concept worth teaching? To guide the selection of teaching topics, the framework prioritizes those that have the following features:

  • Central to a given discipline or subject area
  • Connect readily to what is familiar to students, and to other subject matters
  • Engaging to students and to teachers
  • Accessible to students via multiple resources and ways of thinking
  • “The (Teaching for Understanding) framework is a representation of what good teaching is. It captures what good teachers do so that we can take gut feelings and make them more explicit and visible.”

#2 Understanding Goals

To focus the exploration of generative topics, teachers can develop nested understanding goals—that is, unit-sized goals embedded within year-long overarching goals,

#3 Performances of Understanding

Throughout the school year, students should be engaged in performances of understanding; activities that both develop and demonstrate their current understanding.

Over time, the performances of understanding in a given topic become progressively more complex.

#4 Ongoing Assessment

In the Teaching for Understanding framework, performances of understanding and student assessment go hand-in-hand whenever possible. Rather than assessing outcomes primarily at the end of the unit, teachers provide feedback, learning criteria, and opportunities for reflection throughout instruction. Feedback from teachers, peers, and self-evaluation can help to advance the students’ work, particularly when:

  • Assessment criteria are made public to students
  • Feedback is provided on a regular basis
  • Students and teachers have ample opportunity to reflect on students’ understanding and barriers that remain.

Included in this are learning communities as a fifth element of the framework.

Like the rest of the framework, promoting collaboration is a challenge that many educators already take on in their classrooms.